Read all about it! Restaurants have no secrets now

Health inspections. We mention them all the time– especially when it comes to new restaurants– but rarely reveal all the dirty details. Sure, you'd probably rather not know what sort of critical violations were recently discovered at your favorite eatery.

But now, thanks to a new Virginia Department of Health website– the first of its kind in the country– which went live on May 1, food consumers no longer have an excuse to remain in the dark about local health practices.

Go to vdh.state.va.us and then click your way into Healthspace, a comprehensive site that lists inspection reports (after January 1, 2003) for all restaurants, fast food operations, delis, day care centers, cafeterias, and the like. There you can see just how many critical and non-critical violations were found, and also learn what has been done to clean them up.

It's the criticals that really count– violations like "raw animal food stored over ready-to-eat food in the refrigeration unit" or "the hand sink in the cooking area was blocked by a trash container." If left uncorrected, these are the types of slip-ups that most likely contribute to food contamination, illness, or environmental degradation.

Thank heavens for health inspections and inspectors. This new website is the perfect opportunity to find out more about the job performed by some of our most secretive (by necessity) public servants.

In an attempt to put a human face on the whole inspection process, and to see first hand how technology is changing this previously paper-heavy profession, Dish met with Catherine Cummins and Adam Meurer, two very committed health inspectors who are part of a five-and-a-half person team covering the 485 restaurants (and other food service facilities) in the Thomas Jefferson Health District, which comprises Charlottesville and Albemarle, Greene, Nelson, Louisa, and Fluvanna counties.

Cummins, an inspector for 20 years, spends much of her professional time handwriting reports on-site, then returning to the office to enter the same data into the computer. Meurer, who just finished up his first year, will rarely use a pen on the job.

Inspectors now show up (unannounced, of course) toting a stewardess-like case on wheels. Inside is a tiny laptop computer, where the inspection data is entered directly, and a tiny printer, for printing the report, which is given directly to the person in-charge. (If there is one– otherwise, that's critical violation number one!)

"This new technology is cutting our workload in half," Meurer tells Dish, "which means we can now give even more priority to new restaurants and also make sure we visit each facility at least twice a year."

Cummins and Meurer are excited about the new website, not only because it saves them time, but also because improving communication-­ both with food service owners/operators and with general consumers– is one of their top goals. "We view Healthspace as an opportunity to keep things open and accessible," Cummins says. "Restaurants have been very supportive of the site overall, and we hope it will also keep consumers happy and informed."

Is it possible to enjoy eating out after you've thoroughly inspected a restaurant's kitchen? Dish had to ask. Apparently both Cummins and Meurer have no trouble separating work from pleasure. "I eat out all the time. We have our favorite places like anyone else," Cummins says.

She didn't reveal any names, but she did admit to being superstitious: "I never eat in a restaurant on the day of an inspection." Sounds like a safe practice, and one that we can all follow now– with the help of a few clicks.